Meet Margaret Muchemi. A fast-rising commercial and runway model, make-up artist, former Miss Kajiado County, and Miss Supranational Kenya 2015, Margaret is taking the modelling and beauty industry by storm. I first met Margaret in a small primary school in Maragua where we both studied. She had transferred in from another school, and she was one class ahead of me. By sheer coincidence, we ended up attending the same high school. She was in form 2 then and a prefect, and when she found out that I had been accepted into Kenya High, she went out of her way to make me feel welcome and at home there. She even waited for my arrival and personally showed me around! Now, Margaret, or as she's fondly referred to by friends, Maggie, is wrapping up her studies at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) as she prepares to head to Harvard where she was accepted on a partial scholarship (details of which are being ironed out). Clearly, Maggie is not your average model/youth. Here she is, in her own words.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Margaret Muchemi, I grew up in Kajiado, studied at the Trinity School in Maragua and later at Kenya High School and I'm now at JKUAT in my final year studying financial engineering.
One could say that your modelling career started when you participated in several modelling events while still in high school. What piqued your interest in modelling?
I honestly did not believe that I could be a model but I realized that I loved to catwalk after having to participate in several mandatory competitions we had in high school. I remember taking part in Junior Entertainment, an event in which form ones entertained the rest of the students through dancing, singing and modelling, and I won the catwalk event. Afterwards, my desk mate, Sarah, pushed me to audition to represent my house in Miss Boma. I ended up winning the actual title of Miss Boma.
You won the title of Miss Kenya Kajiado County in 2015. What motivated you to compete for the title of Miss Kenya Kajiado County?
After my modelling succes in high school, I wanted to join the Miss Kenya competition. Since we had to start from county level, what better county could I represent than the one I have lived in for almost 20 years now! I love Kajiado and I wanted to showcase what my county has to offer.
You competed in both Miss Kenya and Miss Supranational pageants while still in university. How did you balance between pageant work and school work?
People think competing in pageants is easy but, honestly, it's hard work and it's very time-consuming. I actually had to take a break from school to focus on Miss Kenya and Miss Supranational because they both involve boot camps. Seeing as competing in these pageants got me recognition from Harvard, I would say it paid off.
Models are stereotyped to be dumb and superficial, even though most models are actually the opposite. As a model, have you met people who had this perception of you? If you did, how did you deal with it?
Yes. Honestly, it happens all the time. It can get really hard, especially when you're applying for something that needs you to be taken seriously, like a 'formal' job. Some people are also shocked when they find out that I'm studying financial engineering. I think judging people based off of how they look is shallow and uninformed. Get to know the person first then make an unbiased judgement. Besides, are we really still judging people on looks? In 2017? That women can either be pretty or be brainy is an archaic concept rooted in misogyny.
What made you gravitate towards financial engineering?
Well, I grew up knowing that having success, career-wise, is having a 'big job'. And because I went to one of the big schools in the country, as far as 8-4-4 public schooling in Kenya is concerned, there was so much pressure to choose a 'serious' thing to study in university. Since I loved maths and always scored straight As in the subject, I decided to choose something mathematical, and that's how I landed on financial engineering. For those who don't know much about the course, it's like the sister to acturial science. I love this course, and I'm glad that I will be graduating soon. One thing that I have learnt while studying is that in our society, people won't respect you if you haven't completed your studies all the way to university, and I don't think that's fair. If you didn't get the chance to finish school, just know that you can still achieve your dreams. And for those in school, know that formal learning is beneficial and it gives you something to fall back on.
You ended up being amongst the top 20 in Miss Supranational 2015, 16th to be exact, with a total of 82 countries competing. How did it feel to achieve such a feat, especially since Kenya was very new to the Miss Supranational scene?
This was one of the most difficult periods in my life. It was a last minute decision to send me to the competition, and I almost gave up due to the lack of support. The other competitors were coming from well funded agencies and I was not, and that brought about some challenges. Despite the difficulties, I held my head high. I did the best I could with what I had. Thankfully, my friends and family were always cheering me on. Placing that high despite all I went through made me believe that I could really achieve anything if I put my mind to it.
You were to attend Harvard after graduating from JKUAT. Will you still be doing that? If so, what will you be studying at Harvard?
I'm still working out the details of this. Hopefully everything works out.
Since you blew up in the pageant scene, you have been a little quiet. Why is this? Have you been undertaking projects on the down-low or did you take some time off?
I have been in school. This is my final year, and final year is always the busiest. I don't really have time for much else. Right now, it's just school, my make-up business, and a few modelling gigs. But school is the primary focus.
You won the 2015 Best Female Model Award when you represented Kenya at the Diaspora Entertainment Awards and Recognition (DEAR). How did it feel to be recognized by the Kenyan diaspora community? Do you think that DEAR is doing a good job at bringing Africans in the diaspora and in the continent together?
Yes, DEAR is doing a job job. The award shines a spotlight on Kenyan works and brings Kenyans together. I was very happy and humbled to win the award. The DEAR family is run by very strong and supportive women who are very passionate about Kenya and Kenyans. I'd like to thank to thank Pam Moraka, Lydia Komungo, and Lydia Akum for believing in me and continuing to support me.
You have worked on several campaigns such as the anti-jigger campaign with Ahadi Kenya and you’ve also worked with the NGO Smile Train. What lessons did you learn from taking part in these projects?
The most satisfying kind of joy you can get is from making an impact on people's lives. I am thankful to have been able to help out in making a positive change in the world. I learnt that there is always someone who needs your help, however big or small, and that if we work together we can accomplish great things. I know that's a cliché, but it's true.
In your opinion, is there colourism in the Kenyan modelling industry?
Yes. Unfortunately, the lighter your skin colour, the more jobs you'll book. It's an unfortunate and ugly truth that many people worldwide have to deal with. However, I have to say that I have noticed a positive change. The industry is growing and there has been a shift. Most runways are now focusing on showcasing all the different shapes, shades and sizes we come in, which is good.
Being a model exposes one to extreme scrutiny of their body. Have you had any such experiences? If so, how did you deal with them?
Yes, I have had these experiences. Everyday, during casting calls, our measurements are taken and some agents will berate you for any changes they deem unacceptable. The current gold standard in modelling is thin, and we are required to fit very narrow standards of beauty, which can drive people into eating disorders. I've actually noted that models are the most insecure people when it comes to body image. You can do your best to eat right and hit the gym, but even that will not be enough for some people. In my part, I try to maintain a healthy diet and to workout whenever I can. I also remind myself that I am enough and that my health matters more than any job.
You recently ventured out as a make-up artist. How is this going? Many make-up brands have been criticized for not catering for darker shades. Have you come across this as a make-up artist? How do you find the Kenyan make-up brands?
I love to do makeup, it’s fun and I just love how much it transforms a person. Yes, there is a void in make-up for darker-skinned people, and I hope that that changes soon. We have seen brands like Fenty Beauty that have come out with wide shade ranges to accommodate people of all colours, and that's the direction we should be headed in. Kenyan make-up brands have also been making waves. Brands such as Suzie Beauty and Huddah Cosmetics have been doing really well. If anyone is going to create shades for us Kenyan skin tones, it's going to be one of us, right? Who else knows our skin like we do? Who knows African skin like Africans? We have to support our own. I'm thankful to all the brands and entrepreneurs out there who are working towards making sure that every colour, every shade, and every skin tone is represented and catered for and I hope that the other brands join the bandwagon.
What advice do you have for young (Kenyan) women venturing into the modelling industry?
Keep your goals in mind and remain focused. Modelling isn't easy.
What is the toughest challenge you’ve met so far?
As a model, the toughest challenge has been sexual harassment. When trying to make it in the modelling scene there are people who try to take advantage of you, and, modelling aside, sexual harassment is a problem that women go through day after day. I mean, the statistics for this are staggering! Women all over the world, irregardless of what they do in life, are going through this. It is definitely an issue that needs immediate fixing. Women are not objects of pleasure, and men need to learn that. Men need to respect women. We need to have these conversations and we need to have them now.
What advice do you have for young Kenyans and Kenyans in general during this political crisis?
Kenya is our home. We are all responsible for taking care of our country. We should all bear that in mind, whether we are pro-Jubilee or pro-NASA. As Kenyan citizens, we need to familiarize ourselves with our rights. When you see someone else's rights being abused, don't be quiet, speak up! We need to protect ourselves and each other.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Definitely as a successful woman with a positive impact on society.